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Divisional Cavalry

CHAPTER 23 — From Amateur into Professional Infantry

page 381

From Amateur into Professional Infantry

The division was now being employed as an infantry rather than a motorised division and was therefore badly in need of a third infantry brigade. There was no gainsaying the fact that, as the war progressed, some arms which in their time had been absolute necessities were now hardly needed. From the nature of the fighting the Division had ceased temporarily to be a fast-moving formation. Its personnel must then be employed to greatest effect. Strong, spirited infantry was the requirement for the winter battles of the last months of 1944.

Without room to move great distances nor the necessity to do so, the Division's light armour had become not only a luxury but also, much of the time, a hindrance on the narrow and often bad roads. The same reasoning applied to the retaining of a light anti-aircraft unit. The Allies had full protection from the air: units and formations no longer needed to employ their own.

The Divisional Cavalry was told of its fate as soon as it came out of the line. Some, mainly the newer hands, took it quite casually, but on the whole the regiment, from top to bottom, took the news badly:

‘[The Major] summoned us together and made a speech. He was very drunk. We were not to grouse but to be proud…. We had “done a great job but in future it was to be our privilege to fight to the finish with the bayonet.” Loud cheers inspired by the sight of him rather than by the prospects he conjured up for us.’

A forlorn regiment moved back: no; it meandered back: back to billets in the village of Cesolo, near San Severino, some 60 miles behind the line. It was a pretty little village as yet untouched by the war, colourful in the late autumn with the poplars golden and the elms now a dark brown; but Div Cav cared for none of this. The men were bitterly disappointed and for a few days their behaviour reflected this. Immediately and without shame they held a huge clearing sale and the peasants came from miles around, drawn as if by a magnet. They sold personal gear, looted gear, army gear, anything—before the Staghounds were taken away for good to the Ordnance depot page 382 at Senigallia. Trucks were detailed to take leave parties into San Severino but the men just wandered around feeling homeless and unloved; and most of them got very, very drunk. At the end of the first day the trucks were gathering them up to go home when the fountain in the main square blew up. Someone had borrowed gelignite from the Engineers. It would be a bad mood that could lead them into such aimless mischief.

The General must have sensed acutely the bitterness of their disappointment when he addressed them in the San Severino town hall. No doubt he read their faces and, in them, saw their thoughts, for the words he chose were soothing words, though they were only able to salve the pain. One man commented:

‘Sure, the 14th Light Ack-Ack had cause to be proud of their record in the Kaponga Box days, scooping Stukas out of the sky. Why, the whole Division was proud of them. Sure, the Div Cav's patrols through the desert campaigns were praiseworthy; but why: why could they not have been given armoured cars then? Sure, the Staghound was a “magnificent weapon but unsuitable for Italian conditions.” That was just the point.’

As one trooper wrote, and naturally he wishes to remain anonymous:

‘No one was impertinent enough to stand up and ask if any Staff Officers had thought after Tunisia of organising for the next, instead of the last campaign.’

But good food, clean clothes, dry billets and rest soon prevailed over these few days' depression and in next to no time everybody had settled down again, determined to become rifle- men as good as any. After all, there were none in the Division they admired more than the infantry, and they were quite capable of noticing that the best of the Division's NCOs had been detailed to teach them. They had just found it hard losing their personality. That was all.

There was a lot to learn: new weapons, new techniques and applications. There was a lot they already knew, for they had the old soldier's shrewdness and knowledge of battle, so in learning, since they had all just been acting as infantry, they had none of the difficulty attendant upon applying their lessons to sets of imaginary conditions and circumstances. Within a month, though they modestly considered themselves reasonable recruit-camp soldiers, inwardly they were confident that they could acquit themselves well in battle. All they had to do was to think in terms of the new battalion establishment.

page 383

Though they accepted the title of ‘Battalion’, the Divisional Cavalry companies remained as squadrons, and the platoons— well, everyone obstinately termed them troops. Sections, yes; they accepted that word. And their official head-dress remained the black berets. Looking back on that month of November, the change of character took place amazingly quickly and easily after the short two or three days of disapproval. Those who were the most depressed at first were the keenest pupils of all when they shook down into their new 32-man troops.

From elementary instruction in the infantry weapons, and such lectures as ‘What the Infanteer Carries into the Line’, to demonstrations of the Piat and the 2-inch mortar and the flame- thrower took a mere week.

Wet canteens opened for the squadrons; football matches were played; route marches with the full scale of ammunition— and nobody even dreamt of dodging taking the full weight; competitions in patrolling by day and by night: all these were taken on with the enthusiasm of schoolboys. The people of the village took them to their hearts for no New Zealander, whatever his mood and whatever the circumstances, can avoid making friends.

In many ways they were a curious mixture to the Italian peasants, in whose eyes, though strangely domestic, they were soldiers and nothing else. They were certainly not expected, for example, to understand farming. One day a trooper paused to watch—and somewhat critically—two men in a farmyard grading oats on an antiquated riddling machine. He took a handful from the bag of ‘firsts’ to examine the quality of the grain, and the farmer began to explain that they were avena, oats, and that they were to be sown in the fields. Noting that they were russet oats and therefore probably ‘Algerians’, the soldier made a wild guess and replied: ‘Si, si. Capisco. Er … Africana?’

That a foreign soldier could not only recognise the grain but name the particular type, rendered two members of a most loquacious race quite speechless—for a moment; and when that was passed there was nothing that would make them accept the halting explanation that: ‘Molti soldati Neo-zealandi son' agricoli.’1 No. They were all soldiers and that was that.

By the end of a fortnight the battalion had progressed to troop-scale manoeuvres and the field firing of all weapons, and in another week, to squadron exercises and to troop exercises page 384 in attacking houses and consolidating strongpoints. After battalion parade on 24 November Colonel Wilder gave a talk on the battalion's future role. Manoeuvres took up the rest of the morning and the afternoon was spent in packing up. ‘Considerable regret,’ according to the war diary, ‘at our imminent departure shown by the Italians and several cases of Signorinas in tears were reported. Our stay here has been very pleasant.’

Let that speak for itself. A lot can happen in a month.

1 ‘Many New Zealand soldiers are farmers.’